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Under My Skin

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Film | September 4, 2009 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Film | September 4, 2009 |

You know when you show up late to a barbeque and all that’s left in the cooler is Diet Coke, but after rummaging around in the ice until your hand is blue you find a can of Coors Light? Sure you’re drinking really shitty beer, but at least you’re not drinking Diet Coke. I was thoroughly convinced that Gamer was going to be the worst movie of the year based on the advertising, trailers and interviews with the director. It ended up being surprisingly good, which isn’t to say that it’s a nice dark micro-brewed ale like District 9 but it sure as hell wasn’t Diet freaking Coke, whatever movie that would end up being in this metaphor (Katherine Heigl … In Space?).

The PR firm for this film really should just be dragged out and shot, the trailers and advertising completely miss anything resembling the film itself. It’s really an accomplishment, basically the PR guys took what happened in the first twenty minutes and pretended that was the entire film. I’m not splitting hairs about them missing the deeper point, I mean quite literally. Gerard Butler being used as a video game avatar is the hook to the main plot, not the main plot itself. It’s like advertising Star Wars as a film about a farm boy who sells his landspeeder.

Gamer is like a science fiction story written by a highly intelligent thirteen year old: it has a few truly compelling ideas and scenes, some tits and explosions, and continuous plot holes that gape with missed opportunities. The film is at turns very entertaining and extraordinarily frustrating. It’s a film actually made worse by how good it is. If it just sucked from start to finish, a viewer could shrug, enjoy the shiny with glazed over ennui and doodle in the fake butter at the bottom of the popcorn basin. But Gamer actually tries to think, and tempts us over and over again with glimpses of darkness and deepness before stumbling off in fucktacularly shittastic directions.

Gerard Butler plays John Tillman, a death row inmate we can tell from the start is obviously innocent or misunderstood based on the fact that he is the protagonist, which means either the dude he killed actually deserved it, or he was set up by the man. He has been pseudo-drafted into the clichéd sci-fi equivalent of gladiator combat, in which if he survives 30 battles he gets a pardon and goes free. Michael C. Hall revels in the role of Ken Castle, playing a cross between Dexter, Bill Gates, and the dancing demon from the Buffy musical. Seriously. He is so nucking futs that he uses his mind control technology to do a choreographed song and dance of Sinatra’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” with a dozen death row inmates.

The jaw dropping surreal awesomeness of that scene highlights everything wrong with the film though because of the way that it is book ended by idiocy. It is preceded by Tillman walking straight into Castle’s home unarmed with no plan, he just sort of strolls in with no on-screen explanation. It is followed by Castle going all James Bond villain and explaining absolutely everything that he has done and plans to do. That three scene sequence is a beautiful microcosm of the film: flashes of brilliance stifled by sloppy storytelling.

[the following paragraph has a few minor spoilers, just to vent some specific plot bitching]
Tillman gets contraband vodka and chugs it so that he can throw it up into a gas tank of one of the ethanol burning cars littering the play area so that he can make his escape. Of course, it was hidden in his pocket when he dressed to enter the game, so he didn’t need to actually drink it. The game is described as making Castle richer than Bill Gates and single handedly propping up the entire prison industry. Two things here: first, to beat Bill Gates ($40 billion net worth) and prop up the prison industry ($50 billion annually), the game would have to be making more money than the NFL, NBA, MLB, video game, music and movie industries put together. Second, the Slayers game does not make its primary money from the people playing (just a few dozen of those), it makes it from the millions of people watching around the world. The mind control technology is therefore irrelevant to the game, it could be done right now with video cameras by the prison industry without some wunderkind middleman. It doesn’t because, you know, we aren’t a society of sociopaths just yet. Of course the biggest plot problem is that Tillman just doesn’t matter other than the fact that he’s the protagonist. There is no film if Castle just uses his mind control to have Tillman shoot himself in the head in the first place before the events depicted in the film.

[spoiler filled plot bitching done]

I could ramble on for pages, dissecting the film scene by scene in this manner, but the idea is fairly clear. Now for some positives, the elements of the film that made it seem like it could have so much more.

The cast was oddly talented, in addition to Butler and Hall, cramming in Kyra Sedgwick as the intrepid reporter, Ludacris as the rebel hacker, Alison Lohman as a motorcycle riding punk with a strange nest for hair, John Leguizamo as an insane fellow inmate, and Milo Ventimiglia in the most awesomely fucked up role since Gary Oldman in The Fifth Element. Milo plays Rick Rape, is dressed in vinyl, and is literally broken over Gerard Butler’s knee. For someone who endured him on “Gilmore Girls” and then “Heroes” for years now, that was as cathartic as a hate fuck.

The most compelling parts of the film were those revolving around the other game, Society. Basically take The Sims and add mind control. So you’ve got the poor and desperate literally whoring out their bodies so that those with money can play them in a pseudo-cartoonish playset. Five hundred pound guys in motorized chairs dressing up a hot blonde like an anime character and having her fuck skeezy guys being controlled by someone else. It’s like a furry convention crossed with tentacle porn and The Sims with a healthy dose of good old-fashioned slavery and prostitution tossed in for fun. The implications of the mind control technology get really intriguing here but the film always regresses back to following Tillman and dealing with the evil genius’ plot. The malice of an evil genius will never be as interesting as the suffering we inflict on ourselves and others. It’s like the standard argument for capitalism over communism: centralized planning just can’t compete with the emergent complexity of individuals.

The thirty minutes or so overall dedicated to the exploration of Society and its fallout were utterly compelling. A complete film made of that would be fascinating and brilliant science fiction. Hell, even add the positive elements of mind control technology to really make a deep story. Simultaneously using the sending and receiving modes of this technology is literally telepathy. Imagine you and your lover seeing and feeling everything that the other one did, sort of like Strange Days taken to the next level. Instantaneously access computer information with your thoughts. This technology is so bloody cool, that using it for nothing but video games and evil plots is just a lack of creativity.

So in summary, it’s a terrifically frustrating film that really hinted at something more but got bogged down in endless plot holes and inanities, without even really seeming to realize which parts were actually compelling. It’s not really worth watching in the theaters, especially given how incredibly short it is (just shy of ninety minutes). If you’re a real sci-fi buff, it’s probably worth picking it up on DVD in a few months if only to pluck out the scenes dealing with Society and to see Michael C. Hall really ham it up.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. He is a hopeless romantic who can be found wandering San Diego’s strip malls and suburbs looking for his mislaid soul and waiting for the revolution to come. Burning Violin is still published weekly on Wednesdays at, along with assorted fiction and other ramblings.

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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.